Ralph Crane/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
Navaho reservation hard hit by snow storm-sign stamped out requesting food & hay. Late 1967.

Native History: Blizzard Devastates Navajo and Hopi Nations

Alysa Landry

This Date in Native History: On December 14, 1967, a blizzard hit the Navajo and Hopi Nations, covering the ground with as much as seven feet of snow, trapping residents in their homes and rendering roads impassable.

A total of 86 inches of snow fell that month in Flagstaff, Arizona, said David Vonderheide, a hydrometeorology technician at the National Weather Service. It was the snowiest December on record.

“Travel on the reservations would have been impossible,” he said. “People would be stuck in their buildings.”

The snow accumulated quickly and the temperature dropped to 6 below zero on December 21, Vonderheide said. Snow fell for a week, followed by arctic air.

Leonard Anthony, Navajo, was 11 when the blizzard hit. He lived with his family in Greasewood Springs, Arizona, a small community west of the Navajo Nation’s capital city and close to the Hopi reservation.

“At first, my dad told us to go out in our shorts and roll in the snow, but after that, it just kept coming down,” he said. “It just didn’t let up. It kept snowing and we couldn’t go anywhere. All the people who were homebound couldn’t get out.”

After a couple of days, Anthony’s father walked to the trading post for food. Because the snow was four or more feet deep, Anthony’s father wrapped gunny sacks around his feet and walked on top of the snow drifts. While he was out, he stopped at the chapter house to determine what was being done for residents stuck in the more remote areas.

“I remember hearing that some of the people were found frozen because they tried to get out of their houses and walk to find food,” Anthony said. “Eventually, after the sixth or seventh day of snow, people were starving.”

On December 18, 1967, as the blizzard continued to rage, the U.S. Air Force began conducting helicopter rescue missions, dropping food and medical supplies to stranded residents. The Associated Press on December 19 of that year reported that Navajo officials were making pleas for state and federal aid in the form of “equipment and men.”

Tribal Chairman Raymond Nakai told the Associated Press that the situation was “the most critical in the modern-day history of the Navajo Nation.” Six days into the storms, 32 deaths had been reported, including three on the Navajo reservation. The snow storms also hit neighboring states and led to a total of 51 deaths.

Nakai estimated that 60,000 Navajo citizens were affected by the storms, included some that had gone without food for 10 days. Nakai also said that 1 million cows, horses, sheep and other livestock were threatened.

Anthony’s uncle helped the National Guard locate stranded residents. Because the helicopters couldn’t land in the deep snow, rescuers dropped food, emergency kits and livestock feed to residents.

“The rescuers couldn’t find the hogans, they couldn’t find the sheep corrals because they were covered in snow,” Anthony said. “They couldn’t find life at all in some places.”

Mary Lou Blackrock trudges through the snow to the clothesline on January 14, 1968 where frozen but clean blankets hang in the sun. She and her family live in the Black Mesa area of the 25,000-square mile Navajo reservation in northeastern Arizona. (Long Beach Independent Press Telegram/AP Images)

Many people lost their livestock, Anthony said. Residents whose animals survived butchered sheep or cows so other people could eat.

“At that time, as a young boy, I began to see there was a lot of community effort to take care of people in remote areas,” he said. “I remember my father sacrificing some of his sheep to butcher so other people could eat.”

Flock belonging to Navaho Indians foraging in deep snow of severe winter. Late 1967. (Ralph Crane/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Although the blizzard of 1967 was severe, roads still become impassable during snowstorms, and emergency situations can arise quickly, Vonderheide said.

“There are huge tracts of land in the West, particularly on the reservations, where there are very few people,” he said. “They are hurt by the extreme weather, and the blizzards also get the livestock.”